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Can a candidate imposed on the party be legitimate?


Ezra Klein is the second Times pundit to actually specify how and possibly with who Joe Biden could be replaced, which I sincerely respect more than pure Johnny Unbeatable wishcasting. And Klein likes Biden and thinks he’s been a good president, which gives him some credibility here. So how is this going to work?

So then what? Step one, unfortunately, is convincing Biden that he should not run again. That he does not want to risk being Ruth Bader Ginsburg — a heroic, brilliant public servant who caused the outcome she feared most because she didn’t retire early enough. That in stepping aside he would be able to finish out his term as a strong and focused president, and people would see the honor in what he did, in putting his country over his ambitions.

The people whom Biden listens to — Barack Obama, Chuck Schumer, Mike Donilon, Ron Klain, Nancy Pelosi, Anita Dunn — they need to get him to see this. Biden may come to see it himself.

I take nothing away from how hard that is, how much Biden wants to finish the job he has started, keep doing the good he believes he can do. Retirement can be, often is, a trauma. But losing to Donald Trump would be far worse.

Let’s say that happens: Biden steps aside. 

A large can opener to assume, but this is the only way there’s another Democratic candidate, and it’s the only possible reason to continue to harp on the issue, so OK we’ll assume Biden steps down arguendo, although there’s no sign it’s happening.

Well, then Democrats do something that used to be common in politics but hasn’t been in decades. They pick their nominee at the convention. This is how parties chose their nominees for most of American history. From roughly 1831 to 1968, this is how it worked. In a way, this is still how it works….

The last open convention Democrats had was 1968, a disaster of a convention where the Democratic Party split between pro- and anti-Vietnam War factions, where there was violence in the streets, where Democrats lost the election.

But that’s not how most conventions have gone. It was a convention that picked Abraham Lincoln over William Seward. It was a convention that chose F.D.R. over Al Smith. I’ve been reading Ed Achorn’s book “The Lincoln Miracle: Inside the Republican Convention That Changed History.” My favorite line in it comes from Senator Charles Sumner, who sends a welcome note to the delegates, “whose duty it will be to organize victory.”

Yes, sometimes open conventions worked and sometimes they didn’t.

I am going to pretty seriously dispute the idea that there’s a fundamental continuity ex ante and ex post 1968. Yes, party elites generally have a strong influence over the nomination, although there are critical exceptions from 1972 to 2008 kinda to 2016. But the legitimating factor of people being able to vote cannot be dismissed so easily. Indeed, the Democratic Party has almost entirely even rejected the quasi-democracy of caucuses, while also trying to make the primary process more representative of the party. In short, the Democratic Party has been moving further along the lines of the representative intraparty democracy model suggested by the McGovern-Fraser commission.

Many political scientists prefer the more elite-driven method of picking candidates. I don’t really agree; the track record of the top-down process of picking candidates wasn’t especially good. (I do find it ironic that many of the people who are nostalgic for the back-room convention are particularly insistent that nominating Hillary Clinton in 2016 was very obviously a world-historical blunder in real time.) But this is a matter of judgment, and at a minimum I agree that you don’t need to have intraparty democracy in the candidate selection process to have a functional liberal democracy.

But norms matter. Democratic voters expect to have a voice in the process, and elites selecting a candidate for the party is a very, very risky proposition. And we shouldn’t kid ourselves about what a major reversal a “brokered” convention would be. What produced a legitimate candidate in 1860 wouldn’t necessarily produce a legitimate candidate today.

Klein’s argument is better than most, however, on this point:

Everybody I have talked about this, literally everybody, has brought up the same fear. Call it the Kamala Harris problem. In theory, she should be the favorite. But she polls slightly worse than Biden. Democrats don’t trust that she would be a stronger candidate. But they worry that if she wasn’t chosen it would rip the party apart. I think this is wrong on two levels.

First, I think Harris is underrated now. I’ve thought this for a while. I’ve said this before, that I think she’s going to have a good 2024. Is she a political juggernaut, a generational political talent? Probably not. But she’s a capable politician, which is one reason Biden chose her as his running mate in the first place. She has not thrived as vice president. The D.C. narrative on her has turned extremely negative. But when Kamala Harris ran campaigns as Kamala Harris, this wasn’t how she was seen. And Harris, in private settings — she’s enormously magnetic and compelling.

To call for Biden to step down, you have to accept the strong possibility that Harris with be the nominee. “No Biden but Harris would be worse” immediately takes you into wishcasting territory. Would Harris’s poll numbers turn around if she was the younger alternative to Biden? I have no idea, but if you think they would it’s the strongest case for replacing Biden.

Still, it is the party’s job to organize victory. If Harris cannot convince delegates that she has the best shot at victory, she should not and probably would not be chosen. And I don’t think that would rip the party apart. There is a ton of talent in the Democratic Party right now: Gretchen Whitmer, Wes Moore, Jared Polis, Gavin Newsom, Raphael Warnock, Josh Shapiro, Cory Booker, Ro Khanna, Pete Buttigieg, Gina Raimondo, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Chris Murphy, Andy Beshear, J.B. Pritzker — the list goes on.

Some of them would make a run at the nomination. They would give speeches at the convention, and people would actually pay attention. The whole country would be watching the Democratic convention, and probably quite a bit happening in the run-up to it, and seeing what this murderer’s row of political talent could actually do. And then some ticket would be chosen based on how those people did.

We should mention one dog that isn’t barking on this list. A non-trivial faction of the party will immediately pivot to pretending that age is the reason they don’t want Biden to run to arguing that the Democratic Party is hopelessly corrupt if it doesn’t nominate one particular 81-year-old who had a heart attack the last time he ran. Perhaps Bernie will pre-empt this by stating very clearly that he will not run and not accept the nomination, but it’s the most obvious source of intraparty conflict.

This aside, one reason to favor the intraparty democracy model is that you learn things about the candidates and their appeal. Evaluating candidates from convention speeches and some electoral success is a very difficult proposition — the possibility of a Walker/DeSantis false positive is real. Head-to-head polling when omne of the candidates has low national name recognition is not useful. And if no frontrunner emerges, getting the losers to accept the candidate will not be easy.

I suppose there might be a point where Biden’s poll numbers flatline to the extent that this massive risk would be worth it. But let’s say I would be very, very careful.

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